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The Human Will and Doctrinal Decline

Ernest Reisinger

(This article is taken from a forthcoming book)

Doctrinal distinctiveness is often overlooked and many times actually discouraged. The following quote by one theologian will illustrate my point. B. Elmo Scoggin said, "Not only would I not vote for it, I would categorically refuse it, and I would fight it to the last drop of my blood to keep the denomination [Southern Baptist] from adopting a creed."[1]

Lynn May, former executive director of the Southern Baptist Historical Commission, said, "A set of doctrinal statements to which [Baptists] must subscribe...would be totally out of keeping with the historical position of Southern Baptists."[2]

These statements are quite contrary to what is expressed in the "Abstract of Principles" which, according to The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary's charter of April 30, 1858, "Every Professor of the institution" must "teach in accordance with, and not contrary to."[3]

These statements are also contrary to what the great Baptist B. H. Carroll says in his commentary on Ephesians, in which he underscores the importance of doctrine and creeds:

A church with a little creed is a church with a little life. The more divine doctrines a church can agree on, the greater its power and the wider its usefulness. The fewer its articles of faith, the fewer its bonds of union and compactness.

The modern cry, "Less creed and more liberty," is a degeneration from the vertebrate to the jellyfish and means less unity and less morality, and it means more heresy. Definitive truth does not create heresy--it only exposes and corrects. Shut off the creed and the Christian world would fill up with heresy unsuspected and uncorrected, but nonetheless deadly.

Just so it is not good discipline that created backsliding and other sins of Christians. But discipline is oftentimes the only means of saving a church. To hold to discipline for immoralities and relax it on doctrine puts the cart before the horse and attempts to heal a stream while leaving the fountain impure. To Christ and the apostles, false creeds were the most deadly things and called most for the use of the knife....

Again, I solemnly warn the reader against all who depreciate creeds or who would reduce them to a minimum of entrance qualifications into the church.[4]

When did the great shift from our doctrinal foundation take place? Harold Bloom's book The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation gives what I believe is the answer to that question:

Edgar Young Mullins I would nominate as the Calvin or Luther or Wesley of the Southern Baptists, but only in the belated American sense because Mullins was not the founder of the Southern Baptists but their re-founder, the definer of their creedless faith. An endlessly subtle and original religious thinker, Mullins is the most neglected of early major American theologians. Pragmatically he is more important than Jonathan Edwards, Horace Bushness, and the Nierbuhrs because Mullins reformulated (perhaps even first formulated) the faith of a major American denomination. Leonard says of Mullins that he personified the Great Compromise only now breaking down in the Southern Baptist Convention. As Leonard notes, Mullins was not a theological liberal, but a defender of Evangelical Baptism who nevertheless found no threat in science or philosophy to the religious. A thorough pragmatist, deeply influenced by William James, Mullins grounded his faith upon "experience" in James's sense. A deep and powerful subjectivity was the basis of Mullins's intellectual and spiritual strength, linked also to a profound understanding that what Baptists believe depended upon a highly personal relation of each individual to God. I don't find it accidental that Mullins had memorized much of Milton's Paradise Lost, for Milton had made himself into a sect of one, and his theological position is scarcely distinguishable from that of Mullins. Milton's devotion to the Inner Light is at the heart of Mullins's doctrine, to which I turn now in order to explore the enigma of just what it is that Moderate Southern Baptists believe.[5]

E. Y. Mullins, the fourth president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (1899-1928) and president of the Southern Baptist Convention from 1921-24, can rightly be called the "re-founder of the Southern Baptists." Mullins articulated theological principles which nearly catapulted Calvinism into oblivion; and when Calvinism goes, the doctrine of man's will goes also.

The title of Mullins's theological dissertation for his Th.D. was A Baptist Examination of Theological Restatement.[6] He was a strong advocate of "Theological Restatement."

There is no question that Mullins's doctrinal position put an entirely different complexion on the theological face of Southern Seminary. The move away from Calvinism caused more attention to be drawn to the old Erasmus error. The place of man's will was at the heart of this change. An honest examination of Mullins's theology as found in his dissertation[7] will soon make it very clear that the turning point began with Mullins.

Mullins replaced the theology of James P. Boyce (as well as that of the famous first faculty of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) with his own theology: "The Christian Religion in its Doctrinal Expression." It is interesting to note that Mullins never once quoted his old theology professor James P. Boyce, and there is not one reference to Boyce's Abstract of Systematic Theology in Mullins's theology text.

Professor Borden Parker Bowne, of Boston University, and his "personalism" had a great influence on Mullins. Personalism is that philosophical outlook which sees ultimate reality as being explained only and fundamentally in terms of personality. (Mullins wrote a favorable review of Bowne's book.) Another mentor of Mullins's was the philosopher William James, whose work Varieties of Religious Experiences (1902) best expresses his philosophy. Certainly, neither Parker Bowne nor William James could be classified as evangelical Christians.

In one of Mullins's theology class lectures, a student recorded the following "values" of experience in theology: "What is there in religious experience that gives it this value?..."

  1. It is a reaction of the whole of man's nature upon ultimate reality, and not the reaction of man's reason alone.
  2. It includes the sense of dependence of pantheism without immirgeing [sic] the soul in the all. There must be "a Thou and an I," if there is to be worship. Pantheism cancels "the I and the Thou," and makes it all "the I."
  3. It includes the emotions without canceling the will and the personality. Mysticism teaches the absorption in the internal. It cancels the will and the intellect.
  4. It has the moral element of the theistic views; but add [sic] the vital religious element.
  5. It is more vital and inward than merely morality because it embraces communion and fellowship with God.
  6. It is more dinamic [sic] than morality because in it the human will is reinforced by the divine will.
  7. It is supperior [sic] to mear [sic] beliefs of all kinds because there is a reciprocal relation [between the] believer and the object of belief.
  8. Religious experience completes our human reaction upon the universe by assigning to the will its part in that reaction.[8]

By the 1970s the residue of evangelical Calvinism in the Southern Baptist Convention bore minimal resemblance to that of its founding fathers. Actually, the high water mark of Calvinistic influence upon the Southern Baptist Convention was reached when the first seminary was founded in 1858. The full tide of Calvinistic influence crested during the era of the famous first faculty of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. For a quarter of a century, stalwart Calvinistic theology rang out with a clarity that the later seminaries never produced. It is safe to say that Southern Baptists were rocked in the cradle of Calvinism.

To answer the question, How did Calvinism fall by the wayside? we must go to Mullins and his "theology of experience" expressed in his own theological work. One writer designated his work "The Theology of Christian Experience in Abstract Doctrine." The very opening chapters in Mullins's text deal with ways of regarding religious experience and the personal need for self-revelation of God. Mullins put us on the road to Erasmusism regarding free will. In Christian Religion and Its Doctrinal Expression he said, "God is limited by man's freedom."[9] In another place he said, "Free-will eats up divine sovereignty: to ignore man's free-will is to see God arbitrary."

As educator, denominational statesman, and theologian, Edgar Young Mullins's "philosophical personalism" is what remains as perhaps the most significant attempt toward theological restatement in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention. In spite of some theological inconsistencies, his heart and soul were tied to biblical Christianity as he understood it. Obviously, he did not realize some of the conclusions his ideas inherently presupposed. He was, of course, very influential. He was a very confusing and contradictory character. One writer said, "He was both a model and a foil." He has left a theological confusion that is with us in the Convention today.

Doctrine

"Till I come, give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine...Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself, and those who hear you" (1 Tim. 4:13, 16). "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine" (2 Tim. 3:16).

These passages of Scripture bring together what should never be separated, that is, doctrine and experience, belief and practice--biblical truth clothed with genuine Christian experience. What God has joined together let no man put asunder.

Jesus Was a Doctrinal Preacher

In the first chapter of Mark we learn some important lessons from the Preacher of preachers-the wise Master Preacher Himself. First, we learn that He prayed before He preached (Mark 1:13). He was forty days and nights in the wilderness before He came to Galilee to begin His preaching ministry (v. 14). Note in Mark 1:35: "Now in the morning, having risen a long while before daylight, He went out and departed to a solitary place; and there He prayed." Immediately after He prayed, He said to His followers, "Let us go...that I may preach...because for this purpose I have come" (v. 38). He stated His purpose very clearly: "I have come to preach."

In this passage we learn some other important lessons from the Master Preacher. In verses 22 and 27 we learn that He preached with authority; in verse 41 we learn that He preached with compassion. What I wish to emphasize, however, is that He was a doctrinal preacher: "And they were astonished at His doctrine" (v. 22); "What new doctrine is this?" (v. 27). These verses tell us plainly that Jesus was a doctrinal Preacher--a teaching Preacher.

Doctrine is to Christian experience what bones are to the body. A body without bones would be an utterly useless lump of "glob." Likewise, bones without flesh are but a dead skeleton.

There are those who cry "down with doctrine" and "up with experience." Some think it quite pious to say, "Christ is our creed and the Bible is our textbook." On the surface that sounds good. But which Christ are they talking about? There are a thousand "Christs" on the religious market. The Jehovah's Witnesses have a "Christ," but it is not the Christ of the Bible. The Mormons have a "Christ," but it is not the Christ of the Bible. Christian Science has a "Christ," but it is not the Christ of the Bible. The liberals have a "Christ," but it is not the One who came to us by a virgin's womb, suffered vicariously on a Roman cross, and rose victoriously from a borrowed grave. There is only one biblical Christ. The cults also say the Bible is their textbook, but someone must proclaim what this infallible Bible actually says, what it means, and how it applies to our lives and the life of the church. Certainly we are all against substituting a dead, doctrinal creed for a living Christ. But our creed need not be dead--just as our faith should not be dead faith (James 2:20). We do not reject true faith because there is a dead faith.

It is not enough to speak of a mystical experience with God without doctrinal knowledge. We must worship God in truth as well as in spirit. Truth can be stated in real words, and when truth is stated in real words, it is doctrine--teaching. This effort to be a practicing Christian without knowing what Christianity is all about will always fail. The true Christian has a doctrinal foundation. The conflict between our Lord and the Pharisees was over the question of who He was--the doctrine of the Messiah.

To believe savingly in Christ involves believing the right things about Him: who He was--the virgin-born Son of God; what He did--suffered vicariously on the cross; why He died on the cross--because of a covenant with God the Father to redeem an innumerable company of sheep (His people) from every tribe, nation, and tongue. "And she shall bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins" (Matt. 1:21).

What is true religion? It is not some mystical, nebulous thing, floating around in the sky. True religion cannot be less than this: right thinking in respect to God; right feeling in respect to God; right acting in respect to God. True religion must reach the whole man. It must reach his mind because that is what he thinks with; it must reach his affection because that is what he feels with; and it must reach his will because that is what he decides with.

Experience and Doctrine

Christian experience is the influence of sound biblical doctrine applied to the mind, affections, and will by the Holy Spirit. Founder of twenty-five churches, J. C. Ryle said, "You can talk about Christian experience all you wish, but without doctrinal roots, it is like cut flowers stuck in the ground--it will wither and die."

It is impossible, therefore, to overemphasize the importance of sound doctrine in the Christian life. Right thinking about all spiritual matters is imperative if we are to have right living. As men do not gather grapes of thorns, nor figs of thistles, so sound Christian character does not grow out of unsound doctrine. Someone may ask, "How do we test true Christian experience in the midst of so much spurious experience and religious confusion?" Let me suggest three tests:

  1. Is this professed religious experience produced by the truth plainly and faithfully presented? It must be biblical truth--not only feeling and emotion or religious excitement.
  2. Is this professed religious experience regulated and governed by biblical truth?
  3. Do the subjects of this professed religious experience manifest a general and cordial love of biblical truth?

Biblical doctrine is more important than most church members realize. Doctrine not only expresses our experiences and beliefs; it also determines our direction. Doctrine shapes our lives and church programs. Doctrine to the Christian and the church is what the bones are to the body. It gives unity and stability.

The church that neglects to teach sound biblical doctrine weakens the church membership. It works against true unity. It invites instability in its fellowship, lessens conviction, and stalemates true progress in the church.

What Doctrines?

Perhaps few would disagree with what I have said to this point. But I do not want to speak in general, nebulous terms. Consider, for example, the word doctrine. The word by itself is almost meaningless. All cults have doctrine. I want to be more specific and speak of the doctrines believed and preached by our Baptist fathers--such men as James P. Boyce, John A. Broadus, B. H. Carroll, John L. Dagg, Luther Rice, P. H. Mell, John Bunyan, Charles H. Spurgeon, William Carey, and Andrew Fuller. I am speaking of those doctrines expressed by the Philadelphia Association in which Southern Baptists have their roots. These doctrines were the foundation of their devotion, their worship, their witness, and all their service to Christ and His church.

Before I mention specifically some foundational doctrines, I must make one simple but weighty point: If what our Baptist fathers believed and taught was true, then it is just as true and just as important today--because the Bible has not changed, truth has not changed, and God has not changed. The minds of men are like porous sieves out of which truth can leak and into which error may seep to dilute the truth. But truth does not change because God Himself does not change. Our understanding of truth may change, but truth does not change.

What specific doctrines am I talking about? I speak of foundational doctrines, not secondary matters. I am talking about those doctrines that were set forth, defined, and defended at the Synod of Dort in 1618 and later expressed in the Westminster Confession and the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689.

I am referring to those doctrines that set forth a God who saves, not this little "God" who just helps man to save himself. I mean those doctrines that reveal the three great acts of the Trinity for the recovering of poor, helpless, lost sinners: election by the Father, redemption by the Son, and calling by the Spirit. All are directed to the same individuals and secure their salvation infallibly. Away with this wicked idea of giving each act of the Trinity a different reference, i.e., the objects of redemption as all mankind; the objects of calling as those who hear the gospel; and the objects of election as those hearers who respond.

Let us instead return to those doctrines which

  • give all the glory of saving sinners to God and do not divide it between God and the sinner.
  • see the Creator as the source and the end of everything both in nature and in grace.
  • teach that history is nothing less than the working out of God's preordained plan.
  • set forth the God who was sovereign in creation, sovereign in redemption (both in planning it and perfecting it), and sovereign in providence--both historically and right now.
  • reveal a Redeemer who actually redeems; a God who saves by purpose and by power; the Trinity working together for the salvation of sinners (the Father plans it, the Son achieves it, and the Holy Spirit communicates and effectually applies it to God's elect).
  • proclaim a God who saves, keeps, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners--and loses none in the process.

God saves sinners! We must not weaken this great truth that God saves sinners by disrupting the unity of the work of the Trinity or by dividing the achievement of salvation between God and man. Jonah had it straight: "Salvation [past, present, and future] is of the LORD" (2:9). These doctrines trace the source of every spiritual blessing--faith included--back to that great transaction between God and His Son which was carried out on Calvary's hill.

The Spirit's gift is not just an enlightening work. It is also the regenerating work of God in men: taking away their hearts of stone and giving them hearts of flesh, renewing their wills, and by His almighty power, determining and causing them to come--not against their will but freely, being made willing by His grace (Ps. 110:3).

"Blessed is the man You choose, and cause to approach You, that he may dwell in Your courts" (Ps. 65:4). It is in this sense that grace proves to be irresistible. Why? Because grace subdues man's power to resist.

Though this is all the sovereign work of God, let us not suppose that God's decision to save a man by a decree leaves man passive and inert. It is the opposite that takes place:

  • The covenant of grace does not kill man; it takes possession of a man.
  • It does not regard man as a tin can, a piece of wood, or a robot; it lays hold of his whole being with all his faculties and powers of soul and body, for time and eternity.
  • It does not annihilate his powers but removes his powerlessness.
  • It does not destroy his will but frees it from sin.
  • It does not stifle or obliterate his conscience but sets it free from darkness.
  • It regenerates and recreates man in his entirety; and in renewing him by grace, it causes him to love and consecrate himself to God freely.

These doctrines show the cross as revealing God's power to save, not His impotence. The cross was not a place to make salvation possible but a place to actually secure the salvation of sinners, fulfilling that prophecy of the great evangelical prophet Isaiah: "He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied" (53:11). God was not frustrated at the cross.

The Bible says, "Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death" (Acts 2:23). God was the Master of Ceremonies at the cross!

William Cowper expressed it in his hymn, "There is a Fountain Filled with Blood:"

Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood
Shall never lose its power
Till all the ransomed Church of God
Be saved to sin no more.

These doctrines will drive us to proclaim to everyone:

  1. All are sinners--not sick and in need help but dead and in need life.
  2. Jesus Christ, God's Son, is the only perfect, able, and willing Savior of sinners (even the worst).
  3. The Father and the Son have promised that all who know themselves to be such sinners and put their faith in Christ as Savior shall be received into favor, and none will be cast out.
  4. God has made repentance and faith a duty, requiring of every man who hears the gospel a serious and full casting of the soul upon Christ as the all-sufficient Savior, ready, able, and willing to save all that come to God by Him.

To the question, "What must I do to be saved?" we must answer: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved" (Acts 16:31). What does that mean? It means:

  1. Knowing oneself to be a sinner.
  2. Knowing Christ to have died for sinners.
  3. Abandoning all self-righteousness, self-confidence, and self-effort.
  4. Casting oneself wholly upon Him for pardon and peace.
  5. Exchanging one's natural enmity and rebellion against Him for a spirit of grateful submission to the will of Christ through the renewing of his/her heart by the Holy Spirit.

Erasmus had a wrong view of the human will and its relationship to other major Christian doctrines. It is still a serious error in Roman Catholic teaching. It is likewise true that this erroneous view is held by most present-day Southern Baptists--"Take heed to yourself [your experience] and to the doctrine" (1 Tim. 4:16a).

John Sutcliff summed it up very well when he said: "Every increase of religious knowledge should not only make me wiser, but better; not only make my head more clear, but purify my heart, influence my affections, and regulate my life."[10]

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